fairy tales

What modern mother hasn't cringed at the pink and passive fairy tale princesses served up to her impressionable girl? The Disney versions of Snow White and Cinderella, Belle and Rapunzel are heroines of such vapid foolishness one wonders how they survived into the 21st century. The answer is that they are rooted in a tenacious and remarkably unaltered cultural tradition, the fairy tales first published two centuries ago by the Brothers Grimm.

The fifty iconic tales in their Kinder- und Hausmärchen collection feature a parade of weak, disobedient heroines whose errors draw down harsh punishment, and an equally noteworthy succession of heroic boys. Numerous studies in recent decades have found the 19th century social world they portray so unremittingly sexist that some leading folklorists warn against reading them to children at all.

This is why the discovery of a huge new trove of unedited German fairy tales is nothing short of a revelation. These tales, only of few of which were published in the 1850s, were collected in the Upper Palatinate region of Germany by Franz Xaver von Schönwerth, a scholar intent on preserving the rapidly vanishing folk wisdom of his region. What they reveal, in abrupt contrast to the Brothers Grimm, is an equal-opportunity world where the brave and clever children are as likely to be girls as boys, and the vulnerable, exploited youths are not just princesses, but princes.

We meet here the male counterpart of the badly behaved princess in the Grimms' Frog King, forced to keep a promise to let a repellent toad into her bed. In Schönwerth's version, he is a boy named Jodl who, equally repelled, must repay the toad's kindness the same way. Snow White's repudiation by a wicked stepmother is countered by Schönwerth's story of King Goldenlocks, who too is initially banished to the forest to be slain by a hunter, who must return with his lungs, finger and heart.

Clever, resourceful girls also make an appearance. The Three Princesses tells the story of sisters enslaved by a witch, the youngest of whom saves an unsuspecting prince in an ingenious way. Grabbing a sword, she magically turns herself into a lake, which the old witch sucks down. The princess slashes her way out of the witch's belly and claims her prince.

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Inspired by the Grimms' first publication in 1812, Schönwerth trekked to remote villages and hearths to collect these oral tales. After his book of folk sayings and legends, including a few fairy tales, was published in 1857, Jacob Grimm himself praised the Bavarian's "careful, comprehensive collecting and fine ear." Indeed, scholars say, what is most striking is their authenticity. These tales are "fresh, unlicked," says Erika Eichenseer, the folklorist who unearthed them "by heaps," forgotten among Schönwerth's papers in the Regensburg historical archive. Maria Tatar, a fairy tale expert at Harvard University, concurs. Nearly all collections, especially the Grimms, were edited to reflect the morals of the day, she says. Schönwerth's, by contrast, are "raw, not cooked."

"He helps us see the degree to which the Grimms were selective in terms of gender, favoring stories about beautiful persecuted heroines and bold heroes," Ms Tatar says. Ms Eichenseer agrees: "There's hardly any sign of all the pretty little princesses, and not a trace of the scolding lifted finger."

What the discovery makes clear is the degree to which this revered Western canon is a social construct. Far from being transcendent examples of universal values, as Bruno Bettelheim argued, these tales were edited and fixed at a specific historical moment. The publication history of the Grimms' Tales is instructive. First published as a large academic collection, the tales were very consciously edited and re-edited by Wilhelm Grimm into a shorter and less bawdy work explicitly intended as moral instruction for 19th century children. Tales by Charles Perrault and Hans Christian Andersen were set down at that same rigidly gender-divided time.

Hence what Ms Tatar calls "the folktale's tenacious emphasis on the evils of female pride." Ruth Bottigheimer, in a 1987 study, Grimms' Bad Girls and Bold Boys, marshaled evidence of Wilhelm's "apparent inner drive to incriminate females." Ms Tatar's analysis, across the broader canon, reveals a similar pattern. "Women are consistently punished for haughtiness, as children are for disobedience and curiosity." The Grimms' versions prevailed in part thanks to early English translation of their tales, in 1823. This popular British edition, illustrated by George Cruikshank, Dickens' illustrator, helped them to permeate the Anglo-American consciousness. Today, thankfully, Schönwerth's fresher, more original tellings have been awakened from their long, enchanted slumber.

An English edition will be our reward. Prinz Rosszwifl (Prince Dung Beetle), published by Ms Eichenseer, is being translated by Ms Tatar and Jack Zipes, another eminent folklorist. And this September, to celebrate the Grimms' bicentennial, the author Philip Pullman will publish a new retelling of his own. One only hopes someone has waved a fairy wand and presented him with something close to the full story: The Annotated Brothers Grimm, edited by Ms Tatar, with an introduction by A.S. Byatt.